Biennale of Sydney 2012 – Art Gallery of NSW and The Museum of Contemporary Art

Following last Friday’s adventure to Cockatoo Island for the 18th Biennale of Sydney, I made the trek back up to Sydney to view what the rest of the major exhibiting venues of the Biennale of Sydney had on offer. Following on from the theme “all our relations” a majority of the works were created in collaboration among artists. The first stop was the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW), a tour guide was organised to take us around and discuss a series of works. The first stop was a work located in the basement of the gallery, where the Indigenous collection is held, something that is interesting in itself, but will be saved for a future discussion.

After passing some of the initial Indigenous pieces we come across a hole in the ground. A square hole, cut into the concrete floor of the gallery, above it a microphone attached to a cable suspended from the ceiling. At first this work seems a bit random and overly conceptual in it’s initial appearance, however, when you move closer to the work an engulfing sound begins, a didgeridoo begins to play, a humming sound and then voices begin. We are told by the guide that the work was created by and Indigenous arts collective, from North America. Most people would assume that a site-specific work incorporating the sounds of and Indigenous Australian instrument would have been created by a First Australian. However, this work not only explores local discourses on Indigenous people, it addresses the Indigenous discourse in a global context. Becoming a symbol of Indigenous people’s relationship with the land needing to be unearthed, literally carved from the oppressive colonial concrete. The work is titled Do you remember when?, it is a question directed straight at the viewer. We are not simply passive viewers of a unearthed past, but are involved in the work itself. Our own voices are recorded and included in the transmission of sounds being emitted from several speakers around the space. So we are not only looking at the past, but also the present and the future all at once.

Do you remember when? 2009-2012. Image courtesy of The Biennale of Sydney 2012.

Moving on, we were taken to the upper levels of the gallery where we entered what was the main bulk of installed work of the Biennale at the AGNSW. We move through the space, past the work of Judy Watson and into a space where we are confronted with a large wall projection of a human figure walking along frozen ice, in front of a large icebreaker ship. A visually powerful work, it creates a lonely tension. We see the figure walking towards us with the ship following closely behind. Quite melancholic and borderline sad. It references the theme of the Biennale, “all our relations”, quite well. We can all relate to the lonely feeling, when something large is looming over us, commonly referred to as the world being on our shoulders, in this case Guido van der Werve has created a much more literal sensation of something weighing down upon us, by having an icebreaker, a powerful and foreboding presence in the piece. This also creates a anxious tension in the work, we are waiting for the worst to happen, as is human nature, though it never does, and we are left to ponder. As foreboding as the piece may be, there is a sense of elation in the viewer as we begin to understand that we are not the only ones who feel as though the icebreaker of life is bearing down upon us.

Nummer Acht: Everything is going to be alright, 2007. Image courtesy of The Biennale of Sydney 2012.

Though I would like to talk about more of the work on offer at the AGNSW, I will not for now, though I will make a favourable mention about the work of John Wolseley. The artist had pieces of fabriano paper strew throughout the gallery, some were almost invisible among the contemporary and modern art on display, they almost acted like a trail of bread crumbs to the major part of the work. Which was situated opposite the above mentioned Post-commodity work, Do you remember when?. Wolseley’s work and the the site specific work were meant to compliment one another in the context of land and landscape. The mark making and detailed drawing drew me in instantly, and upon learning about the artists treatment of his work, often leaving his   Murray Sunset Refugia with Ventifacts 2008-2009. Displayed below, this was one of my most favourite works of the entire Biennale because of it’s tactile nature and the rawness of its creation.

Murray Sunset Refugia with Ventifacts 2008-2009. Image courtesy of The Biennale of Sydney 2012.

After a brief walk through the City, I made my way to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) to meet with the rest of my class. We were in for a brief talk with a University of Wollongong Alumni, Glenn Barkley, who is the current curator of the MCA’s permanent collection. However, before the talk, I took the liberty to wander around the work displayed on level three of the newly built section of the MCA. The first work I came upon was Tyaphaka, 2011, by Nicholas Hlobo, a South African born artist, his work is a mixture of drawing, painting, water colour and textiles. The artist talks about his work being a challenge against preconceived notions of masculinity and gender as well as race and ethnicity. The works on paper in the MCA hark back to Art-Povera, the recycling of materials as well as the use of tea stains and stitching adds to the complexity of the work. Along with changing the viewers perception conceptually, the work strives to create a new visual dialogue through the use of these everyday craft like materials, bridging or even blurring the gap; blurring seems a more apt word, since the work is beautifully framed with a somewhat frosted glass over it, again highlighting the artists concept of challenging preconceived ideas. We can relate to the work beyond it being a purely abstract composition, we can relate to the reality of being misinterpreted by others and how this can have a ripple effect upon our lives.

Tyaphaka, 2011. Image courtesy of The Biennale of Sydney 2012.

An honourable mention should go to the work created by Yeesookyung and Park Young-Sook. Two Korean artists, one of whom, Park Young-Sook, has used a centuries old method of creating what are referred to as “Moon jars”. Having cultural significance to the artist. Though they seem to be perfect and and pristine, they are riddled with flaws, errors in the firing of the kiln, drips in the glazing. We begin to understand that these pieces of porcelain are just as flawed as their creator, and by extension us as human beings. We are flawed in many ways, and like the work we often try to cover them up by putting on some kind of metaphorical, or even in some circumstances quite literal masks or cover-ups, in this case the works have been glazed in this beautiful white, temporarily covering the imperfections. The work created by Yeesookyung, Translated vase – the moon, 2008 is a visually striking piece, displayed below in the installation shot, it commands the attention of the viewer. We are confronted with a mass of what are broken shards of porcelain, the very same jars created by Park Young-Sook, though these are the rejected pieces, the pieces that didn’t make the cut. They have been given a new lease on life, in what is literal translation of the first artists work. Referencing the “moon vases” by creating a porcelain moon of her own, joining the pieces together and covering the imperfections with gold leaf, much like the imperfections of Young-Sook’s work. A related dialogue has been created, the works speaking to one another, across time, bridging the generational gap between the artists and the cultural gap we initially came across.

Installation view, White porcelain moon jars, 2006  and  Translated vase – the moon, 2008.  Image courtesy of The Biennale of Sydney 2012.

As for the curatorial decisions made in the installation and hanging of work in both venues, and the split design of the catalogue, they left something to be desired. The overall theme of all our relations seemed to be lost on the curators. The work in both galleries was disconnected and split, whole sections of Biennale confused with the galleries permanent collections and current exhibitions. As for the catalogue, the essays are in depth and quite a good read, however, the split design again takes away from the overall theme of relations and interconnectedness, and is quite honestly annoying and hard to digest visually. Apart from these small negative elements, the Biennale of Sydney was a success, and hopefully in two years time I shall make my return and see what’s in store for the 19th Biennale of Sydney.